Contract Day in Jupiter

Twenty-six St. Louis Cardinals got their contract situation settled yesterday.  Twenty-four of them agreed to one-year deals that were befitting their status as players with less than three years of MLB service.  Nothing dramatic about that–happens for every team every year.  That’s part of the game, or at least it is right now.  Given the lack of desire for older free agents, you wonder if these sort of things will change in the next collective bargaining agreement, but for now, them’s the rules.

One player who would have fit in that group was Paul DeJong, but he broke the mold and signed a six-year extension worth $26 million, with two option years that could run it up to over $50 million.  I want to clearly preface the rest of this discussion with the following: this is not a deal that will hurt the Cardinals in any way.  $26 million is less than somebody will pay per year for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado this offseason, most likely, and the Cardinals could (though not necessarily will) be that team.  Financially, the Cardinals could cut DeJong today and still not feel it (though that might not be the spin in the press if they did).  This really isn’t a big deal at all and if the Cardinals believe that DeJong is going to be a star based on last season’s results and how he came up through the minors, then more power to them for locking him up early.

My only concern (as I remarked last night on Meet Me at Musial) is that it didn’t have to happen and it could backfire on them.  DeJong’s contract is the biggest ever given out to a player with less than a year’s worth of service.  There are many folks that expect that he might have been playing over his head last year, that he’ll slip off to a more reasonable level of production.  Some folks invoke the specter of Aledmys Diaz, though I don’t believe DeJong will fall that far that fast.  There’s just one year to judge on, though, not even that.  It’s not surprising that some are a little concerned about his future.

With this signing, it (in theory, and we’ll get to why it doesn’t necessarily mean that in a moment) means that DeJong is going to be part of the Cardinal core for a long time to come.  As he’s progressed through the minors, I know that folks like Kyle Reis were excited about him as a player but I don’t know that anyone was thinking he was going to be this major building block for Cardinal teams of the ’20s.  Obviously, moving to shortstop has helped everything, including raising his value, but I never thought he’d be the next Matt Carpenter, for instance.  He’s a fine player and I am glad he’s a Cardinal, but I didn’t know if he was worth this kind of commitment.  The Cardinals obviously do.  That might be because there’s no other obvious shortstop coming up.  Many of the others in the organization seem like utility men/backup shortstops if they make it to the big leagues.  Even if Delvin Perez has it all click, he’s probably three seasons away and DeJong could move to third barring any major free agent signings in the future.

Of course, we said similar things about Allen Craig and similar things about Stephen Piscotty when they signed their long-term deals early in their careers.  I’d like to do some digging and see when in a player’s career (experience-wise) the Cards have given out these extensions–and they’ve given out a number–and see how well they’ve worked out.  Of course, Craig and Piscotty nose-dived for various reasons and the Cards were able to not only trade them off without financial responsibility but receive a quality return for them (though St. Louis did have to include Joe Kelly with Craig to get John Lackey).  Expecting other teams to bail you out of mistakes, though, isn’t exactly the greatest long-term strategy.

If you are one that believes the Cardinals could be in the hunt for Machado (and I still believe they will be players this offseason, especially if this season’s results are not up to par), DeJong could slide to third if they acquired him and he really wanted to play short.  The money obviously doesn’t preclude them from doing anything of that nature, so saying this deal shuts off that avenue is premature.  If they don’t go over Machado, it won’t be because of this contract signing.

The last player that received a contract was Tommy Pham.  Unlike everyone above, Pham did not agree to contract terms, they were imposed upon him.  The Cardinals didn’t renew him at the minimum, like they could have, but even though $570,000 is “one of the largest for a third-year player” according to Derrick Goold, it’s still just $25,000 more than the minimum they could have gotten him for.  In other words, Carson Kelly is going to make almost as much as Pham, though their playing time is likely to be much different.

St. Louis came to Pham with a two-year contract offer that he declined.  We don’t know how much the deal was for, though obviously it was more than $570,000.  Pham’s thought process was that two years buys out one of his arbitration years and he felt he could make more in arbitration than what St. Louis was offering.  With another good season, there’s no doubt that’s the case.  As Pham says, he’s from Vegas so he’s betting on himself.  (The only kind of betting allowed in baseball.)

I can’t fault Pham for this stance at all.  I wouldn’t be courageous enough to do that, given an injury history and an eye problem and the fact that he’s now 30 (well, he will be Thursday–happy early birthday, Tommy!).  There are a lot of variables outside of his control that could cause him to lose out on some significant money.  If he plays all season, I believe he’ll have a much stronger case next winter with arbitration as a lever for him to push the Cardinals to a bigger contract if he wants to do so.

We’re not anywhere close to the situation, but while I’d expect Pham is maybe a little disgruntled with the team’s outreach (if it came from them–seems like some of the momentum was from the player’s side) to DeJong after a good season, I don’t think he’d hold it against his teammates.  Pham’s going to call out anyone he feels needs to be called out but I don’t think he’s going to single out someone that got arguably better treatment than he did.

Where this might be an issue is Pham’s relationship with the front office.  There’s no doubt Pham plays with a chip on his shoulder and I think John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch (he’s still there, right?) have given him another one.  You look at all the various outfielders that are going to need to start making it to the major leagues soon.  Harrison Bader. Jose Adolis Garcia.  Oscar MercadoRandy ArozarenaTyler O’Neill.  At some point this logjam is going to have to break.  Marcell Ozuna is here for two seasons.  Dexter Fowler is here for four more.  If Tommy Pham is producing MVP-level production at basically a minimum salary and the Cards are struggling this season, is there really any question that he’ll be moved?  Even if the Cardinals do well, you have to figure they’d be very open next winter to moving him to a team that would be willing to sign him to a deal or take their chances in arbitration with him.  It should be an interesting storyline to follow for the rest of the calendar year.

All that is in the future, though.  Right now, the Cardinals have a very productive asset at a low cost and Tommy Pham will have over 1/2 million dollars and a major league job this season.  While tensions may be there, there are also good things on both sides.  The Cardinals have their team signed and their costs determined.  Now they can see who will make up the roster.  Just over three weeks left until Opening Day in New York!

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